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The Five Element Relationships in Chinese Medicine


It was observed over the years that the Five Elements relate to each other in different ways.

  • Sheng Cycle (Generating Sequence)
  • Ko Cycle (Controlling Sequence)
  • Destructive Cycle (Overacting Sequence)
  • Anti Ko Cycle (Insulting Sequence)

Sheng Cycle

The Generating Sequence or Mother-Child Relationship

As in the cycle of the seasons, each element generates another, i.e., one element is the "mother" of the next.

Generating Relationship
Wood (Liver) creates Fire (Heart) Wood (Liver) is the Mother of Fire (Heart)
Fire (Heart) creates Earth (Spleen) Fire (Heart) is the Mother of Earth (Spleen)
Earth (Spleen) creates Metal (Lungs) Earth (Spleen) is the Mother of Metal (Lungs)
Metal (Lungs) creates Water (Kidneys) Metal (Lungs) is the Mother of Water (Kidneys)
Water (Kidneys) creates Wood (Liver) Water (Kidneys) is the Mother of Wood (Liver)

Naturally, therefore, each element is generated by another: Fire is the child of Wood, Earth is the child of Fire, etc. In nature, we see this in the seasonal changes: Winter transforms into Spring, Spring changes into Summer.

Ko Cycle

Controlling Sequence or Father-Child relationship Each element is said to control, check, or regulate another.

  • Wood controls Earth
  • Fire controls Metal
  • Earth controls Water
  • Metal controls Wood
  • Water controls Fire

Each element is of course then controlled by another.

  • Earth is controlled by Wood
  • Wood is controlled by Metal, etc.

This cycle ensures that a balance is maintained between elements.

The "father-child" symbology relates to traditional family roles, where the father was the patriarchal head of the household. The mother, by comparison, is seen as the creative and nurturing force.

Destructive Cycle

Overacting Sequence

This is the same as the Ko cycle, but in this sequence, one Element is said to "over-control" or "destroy" another, causing the controlled element to become Deficient. This happens when balance breaks down so that one element becomes excessive in relationship to another.

i.e. - An excess of Wood energy will over-control Earth, causing Earth to become Deficient.

Anti-Ko Cycle

Insulting Sequence

This cycle is the reverse of the Ko cycle or controlling sequence. In the Insulting Sequence, the element that should BE controlled becomes imbalanced and excessive, and controls the element that normally controls it.

i.e. - Instead of Metal controlling Wood, if Wood becomes excessive, it can "insult" Metal, causing it to become imbalanced. This is akin to the child rebelling and insulting or trying to discipline its father.

Four Possible Pathologies

Element in Excess overacts on another (Overacting sequence)

Element in Deficiency insulted by another (Insulting sequence)

Element in Excess drains from Mother (pathological Sheng cycle)

Element in Deficiency fails to nourish Child (pathological Sheng cycle)